It’s hard to believe that lactose intolerance has entered the political realm, but it has. It’s also hard to believe that anyone would milk a cow, goat, yak or any other milk-giving animal for any reason other than to drink the milk or make something out of it. In other words, no one mans the bucket just to check it off of their bucket list. So it seems strange that Mongolian herders 3,000 years milked every animal that was milkable and consumed all of that dairy despite the fact that new research found that they were lactose intolerant. How did they conquer it? Was politics involved?
“We know now dairying was practiced 4000 years before we see lactase persistence [the ability to digest lactase]. Mongolia shows us how.”
Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Jena, Germany, is the co-author of “Bronze Age population dynamics and the rise of dairy pastoralism on the eastern Eurasian steppe” in the latest edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). She started with the observation that modern Mongolian herders get a third of their calories from the milk of seven species of animals and told Science Magazine: "If you can milk it, they do in Mongolia.” However, 95% of them are lactose intolerant.
Modern Mongolians digest dairy products by using the natural microbes that occur when whole milk is converted into other dairy products – a reason why many lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt or cheese. The Mongolians take this processing to an extreme, making these and other products rarely heard of, let alone consumed, outside of their culture -- dried curds (aaruul), yogurt, kefir, a light milk liquor (shimiin arkhi) and fermented mare's milk (kumis). Did their ancestors consume the same products or did they inherit some sort of lactose protection from their ancestors, which have been lost over time?
Because nomads left little behind and the harsh climate destroyed their pots and trash pits, Warinner and her team studied dental calculus -- the plaque build-up on teeth -- from nine skeletons from the period between 1300 and 900 BCE. They found milk proteins from sheep, goats, yaks and cows along with DNA evidence that the people were lactose intolerant and had little or no evidence that they might have inherited from the Yamnayas, a previous culture whose bodies had developed lactose protection.
So, the ancient Mongolians developed a love of all kids of dairy and developed ways to consume it – ways like cheese that also allowed them to keep it for long periods. How did they figure all of this out? That’s the next question Warinner will try to answer.
In the meantime, practice tolerance in your diet by trying some different dairy products that are both tasty and good for your gut, and practice tolerance in your life by taking milk out of politics. Remember, we all ‘got milk’.